Take Five: Bhisham Bherwani on the Process of Writing Sonnets & More
Bhisham Bherwani’s six-week workshop The Sonnet begins Wednesday, April 10 at Poets House. We asked him a few questions about his life as a poet and his experiences with writing and reading poems in the sonnet form.
1) What inspired you to want to teach a writing workshop focusing on the sonnet?
The significant amount of work being written and published today that ingeniously adapts and applies the age-old form. It’s edifying to see such innovation.
2) Can you describe your own process of writing a sonnet? How do you know when a poem needs to be in sonnet form? What are the most rewarding and/or most difficult aspects of writing a sonnet?
It’s not so different from writing anything else, nor necessarily more difficult, nor easier, nor more or less frustrating, more or less fulfilling; it happens to entail appreciating predefined boundaries, organic though they are, rather than designing a poem’s overall structure.
One internalizes the form by closely reading sonnets. The decision to compose one seems to me to be instinctive. Its pattern of progression, its facility for a concluding flourish, and its length may appeal to certain subjects, certain perspectives.
Rewarding, I suppose, is finishing one. It feels then that the structure was preordained. One learns from the process and the poem, and maybe wants to compose another. Often, in fact, it marks only a part of an unconsummated project, which may explain the many sonnet sequences, not only those of Petrarch and Shakespeare, of Donne and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but also of Auden (“The Quest”), Robert Lowell (Notebook), and Seamus Heaney (“Glanmore Sonnets”); and also, straddling lyric and narrative, of Marilyn Nelson (“A Wreath for Emmett Till”), Joan Larkin (“The Blackout Sonnets”), and other contemporaries.
3) What are one or two under-sung sonnets that you particularly admire? What captivates you about them?
Just one or two?
I love Auden’s “The Waters” from The Double Man, near the end of the aforementioned sequence. It’s brilliant and brutal in the brevity with which, using a body of water as metaphor, it considers our ignorance—including that of “Poet, oracle and wit”—in the face of overarching mysteries.
I love the four renditions, two of Luis de Góngora, two of Francisco de Quevedo, together titled “The Ruins of Time,” that conclude Lowell’s Near the Ocean. They embody that most perennial of poetic themes, also a subtext of the book: vanity. Despairing, resigned, and haunting, they make for a fine coda to a volume with another related subtext: the folly of empire.
4) Who has been your favorite teacher—in the classroom or otherwise—and why?
I’m fortunate to have enrolled in Robert Morgan’s class as an undergraduate at Cornell, and later studied with Marie Ponsot and Chard deNiord. They all gave me a long leash and encouraged me, and they have been extraordinarily generous with their time and support.
5) When you’re not writing and teaching poetry, what feeds your creativity?
The things that inform my work: family, art, literature, travel.
Sign up for Bhisham Bherwani’s workshop on The Sonnet by April 5!
Bhisham Bherwani is the author of three poetry books. His essays have appeared in the American Poetry Review, The American Reader, Pleiades, Rain Taxi, The Yale Review, and other places. He was educated at Cornell University and New York University. He lives in New York City.